Get a taste of authentic Lunar New Year food and culture Friday at Gallery Night

Brittany Misencik
Pensacola News Journal

Chinese-American baker Liang Xu is determined to bring the "magic" of the Lunar New Year, or "Chinese Spring Festival," to the people of Pensacola by way of food.

The local population of Chinese people, and for that matter Asian people, is slim, according to 2021 U.S. Census Bureau estimates. About 1.5% of city residents and 3.3% of Escambia County residents identify as "Asian only."

In part of keeping her native traditions alive in the United States, Xu owns and operates a Chinese home bakery called The Pretty Bear's Bakery, where she rolls out Chinese and Asian style sweets on a 24/7 basis. But this week will be special, as Xu will be preparing large and small variety boxes to sell at January's Gallery Night from 5 to 9 p.m.

"I want to be a part of it (Gallery Night) to share the Chinese culture," Xu said.

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She said not only is it difficult to find other Asian-Americans in Pensacola with the same interest in preserving traditions, but even China itself is struggling to pass down the traditions to its younger generations.

"There are certain foods you need to eat, and the younger people don't know how to make it," Xu said. "Everything is just so fast nowadays."

The massive celebrations she knew as a kid throughout the streets of China were only a fraction of what her parents and grandparents experienced, she said. People need the younger generation to keep those traditions alive, which is part of what she hopes to accomplish through her business.

Liang Xu, owner of The Pretty Bear's Bakery, hand paints details on tiger cookies in Pensacola on Thursday. Xu will be selling these cookies and other treats for the Lunar New Year at Gallery Night and at the Palafox Market in downtown Pensacola.

The variety boxes she is selling will include a blend of traditional pastries and a bag of tea to enjoy them with, themed around the celebration of the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 1 this year. There are also a few treats in the box reflective of other special Chinese holidays, such as the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival on Sept. 10.

Smaller-sized boxes will sell for $15, and a larger-sized box will go for $35.

The treats are extremely symbolic to the Chinese culture, such as her bite-sized butter almond cookies. The almond cookies are a Lunar New Year staple that symbolize coins, or good fortune.

Even with some of her most traditional treats, Xu has still put her own creative touch on, such as her Hong Kong-styled moon cakes.

The moon cakes are typically shared around the time of the second most important festival in China, the Mid-Autumn Festival, which, like the Lunar New Year, is also a time for family reunion. The chocolate and strawberry flavor that Xu has incorporated into the cake is a twist on the original recipe.

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Other special treats she creates that are used for celebration are Taiwanese Pineapple Cakes, made with either a Japanese green tea crust or Earl Grey tea crust and filled winter melon and pineapple jam.

"In Taiwanese, the word pineapple sounds similar to a phrase meaning 'prosperity comes,' which make pineapple cakes popular gifts for engagement or Lunar New Year," she said.

Lunar New Years of years past  

Lunar New Year traditions in China aren't as different from American traditions as one might expect, Xu said, but the motives behind them are.

Firecrackers fill the streets at night like on the Fourth of July, but they are to scare away a monster called "Nian" from attacking the villagers and children. It's a folk tale passed down through generations, but never really mistaken for truth, she said. Regardless, the children are also encouraged to wear red, the color that the monster is most afraid of.

Children travel from home to home of their neighbors, pounding on doors and wishing them a big "Happy New Year" in hopes of receiving a treat in return, much like Halloween's trick or treat, but without any of the tricks, Xu said.

Families gather around the table to eat foods that bring luck and prosperity. Much like a plate of pork and sauerkraut or bowl of black-eyed-peas that would suffice on New Year's Day in the United States, fish is considered to bring good fortune in the coming year.

For her family, the week before the Lunar New Year is spent getting everything ready for a marathon of family visits that would be to follow. Cleaning the house, getting haircuts and preparing meals for guests, as well as taking the time to honor ancestors, were all regular practices.

On the day of the Lunar New Year itself, no one would be allowed to do work of any kind, otherwise, that person would be doomed with a year's worth of hard work to follow.

World's largest human migration

The Lunar New Year is unique in the fact that it draws more people back to their hometowns in China at once than anything else in the world. The massive homecoming attracts 385 million travelers in an average year, according to a 2018 report by Forbes.

Liang Xu, owner of The Pretty Bear's Bakery, makes almond cookies in Pensacola on Thursday. Xu will be selling these cookies and other treats for the Lunar New Year at Gallery Night and at the Palafox Market in downtown Pensacola.

After moving to the United States in 2019 after the new year occurred, Xu's first Spring Festival away from from home fell in the year of 2020. She quickly came to the realization that she would not be able to make the trip home due to the pandemic, but would instead spend it with community she built in Pensacola.

"The New Year's Eve Feast is a must-do dinner with all family members reuniting. Chinese try very hard to make this family event, often traveling long distances. This is the main reason for the huge travel stress throughout China," she said.

Even some of the traditions she grew up hating as a kid, she has since begun to long for without being able make a homecoming of her own, and continues to replicate them in Pensacola.

"I do miss home and all the traditions. When I was home, I thought all of these were so ordinary, but didn't realize they are all in me, in every detail," she said. "For example, I hated it when my mom made me wear red socks on Spring Festival, but now I'll make my husband wear red socks."